What PR Pros Can Learn from Rolling Stone’s Mistakes

The report is on Rolling Stone‘s coverage of the University of Virginia rape allegations case, and it’s scathing according to USA Today.

According to the Columbia University School of Journalism investigation, the article reporter and the magazine’s editorial staff failed in catching (and not publishing) the errors in the story:Crystal 040615

The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking. The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary, essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine’s editors to reconsider publishing Jackie’s narrative so prominently, if at all. The published story glossed over the gaps in the magazine’s reporting by using pseudonyms and by failing to state where important information had come from.

Ouch.

But journalists aren’t alone in the use of using personal stories to gain attention for an issue. Persuasive storytelling is one of communicators favorite tools in our communicating for social change toolkit.

So what can we learn from Rolling Stone‘s mistakes to tell accurate, yet powerful person-first experiences in our communication work?

  • Fact-check. Fact-check. Fact-check again. As much as possible, always double-check the facts of the story before taking it public. The Rolling Stone article was trying to bring attention to the growing problem of sexual assault on college campuses. They succeeded until the story started to fall apart. Because they failed to fact-check the victim’s story, the magazine published an inaccurate story, undermining the credibility of the entire article and the point of the expose. To keep your audience focused on the social issue you are communicating about, don’t distract them with half-truths or embellished claims. Make sure everything you say and write is truthful and solid.
  • Keep it simple. This is not just a rule for writing in general; when sharing personal stories, it becomes critical. Offering too many details for dramatic effect can open the door for critics to find fault, or even inaccuracies, in your story. Rolling Stone used flourishes to paint a grim, ugly scene of a gang rape. The details were provided by the victim, but the details of the location, timing and other descriptions of the crime were investigated and found untrue. Keep in mind your single overriding communication objective and stay on message when telling your story. Illustrating the scene is different that telling the story which focuses on the key story facts and reinforces the key message you’re trying to communicate to your audience about an issue.
  • Give a face to the story. Sharing stories about sensitive personal experiences can be difficult. In those cases, we try to create a supportive and safe environment for telling those stories. Part of that safety may be in allowing the storyteller to remain anonymous. Offering the pseudonyms may create protection and separation for the storyteller, but it clouds the story for the audience. Whenever appropriate and possible, try to engage storytellers who are willing to place their face and name to their story. If they are willing to go public, be clear with them about the stakes and potential consequences of their actions and provide them with professional services to support them through their storytelling. Giving a real face and name to a story can be a powerful way to reinforce the personal impact of a social issue. If the storyteller agrees to be the public face of an issue, it’s our responsibility to make sure we are purposefully sharing, and not exploiting, their story.

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